Friday, March 9, 2012

Man on Film: John Carter

It may seem odd that 2012 is realistically the first time in cinema's history* that A Princess of Mars could have been adapted in a (presumably) just way, especially considering that the source material is 100 years old, but Edgar Rice Burroughs's Martian world of Barsoom is far too fantastical to have been a live-action film up until now. In the hands of Andrew Stanton, director of Wall-E and Finding Nemo, the world of John Carter comes alive on screen.

*We'll just pretend that 2009's Princess of Mars starring of Antonio Sabato, Jr., and Traci Lords didn't happen...

John Carter's scope is grand and fantastical. Set largely against the backdrop of the magnificent vistas of Utah serving as a surrogate for Mars, the scenery is visually arresting in its own right, and fortunately the special effects wizardry on display is rendered faithfully and realistically enough so as not to quash that natural beauty. Stanton's crew clearly worked tirelessly to do this, and their efforts paid dividends that so few similar ventures before them have reaped. Unlike, say, George Lucas's second trilogy or more recently Thor, Andrew Stanton has created a false world that feels real. Perhaps this should all have been expected from one of the brains behind the wild success of Pixar, but the fact remains that Stanton's first foray into live-action is a mostly successful (if poorly marketed) one. 
While Andrew Stanton's vision can be largely considered to be the root of the film's success, it would not be what it is without the talents of Taylor Kitsch. Sure, he may not be pitch perfect every second of the film, but it is Kitsch's skill for being both self-deprecating and macho, his preternatural ability to exude both selfishness and selflessness on the drop of a dime, that lifts this film's heart. Kitsch has a charm that is evident from his first moment on screen. As he's ditching a tail on the streets of a rainy Williamsburg (I think), he ducks into a doorway and shields his face along with that of an unsuspecting lady, who he takes in embrace. As he lets her go, it isn't a stretch to assume that her swoon isn't requiring much acting on her part. His repeated escapes while in custody of the U.S. Army on the Arizona frontier, solidify both his charm and his humanity, as even while pissing there is something innately endearing about him and while seemingly willing to run into walls head-on he is always left battered for having done so. Upon finding himself on Mars, his realization of his newfound abilities play exceptionally well, his clumsiness with them playing to great comic effect. 

And that is one of the better aspects of the film. John Carter manages to mix in a hearty dose of comic relief, often through Carter's own very loose control over his powers. His battles, his ventures into flight, his acclimation to the world; all are played with just enough sloppiness as to humanize his supremacy on Barsoom. Even relatively late in the film, John Carter is still jumping into dicey situations headstrong and slipshod, rarely landing on his own two feet. This gets at the root of what makes Kitsch so magnetic in the first place.

Stanton and company also cast both their villain and love-interest well in choosing Dominic West to play Sab Than and Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. Dominic West seems to thrive in the role of movie villain, which should come as no surprise to fans of The Wire. Too often his film roles are limited to that of mere heel or traitor, but he easily steps into the role of cutthroat warring prince, possessing all of the requisite gravitas to own the role. As for Dejah Thoris, fanboys (and any red-blooded American male, really) probably would have preferred a Dejah Thoris that was much more scantily clad than Lynn Collins was, but unfortunately this is a PG-13 movie. While the accent may come off as forced from time to time, there is no denying her smoking hotness, and she is able to bring the physicality to the role necessary to buy her both as a princess and a warrior. She is also able to viably endear herself to her co-star, upon which the success of the movie largely hinges.

Now there are hokey aspects of the film, most of them owing to the century-old source material. The native names of the planets and the races all seem hopelessly antiquated. There is a faithfulness to the Edgar Rice Burroughs stories that must be upheld, but whenever someone refers to Mars as Barsoom, there seemed to be a subconscious urge to cringe. It is, however, a tale of fantasy, so much of that sort of thing should probably be expected. What does work, works pretty damn well. The screenplay, courtesy of Stanton and Mark Andrews with a polish by Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Michael Chabon, is perhaps a bit deliberately paced, but there wasn't any point in the film in which one's attention was allowed to wander too far. 

Despite the fairly tepid reviews, John Carter was a lot of fun. All you should really have to hear though is this is a movie in which a shirtless Tim Riggins kicks a bunch of Martian ass. Having Lynn Collins look just as good is a bonus.

If you locals do see it at the Alamo, there is now a nice clip of Kitsch telling people not to talk or text in the theaters. Awesome.

Here is the trailer.

Or if you would prefer to watch the first ten minutes of the film (basically the lead-up to when he finds himself on Mars), this clip will take care of that.

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